Justice  /  Antecedent

Divestment and the American Political Tradition

From Dow to now.

The protests at places like Columbia, UCLA, and Dartmouth have led to mass arrests, rollicked their campuses, and garnered significant media attention, but they are ultimately operating within the American political tradition described by Hofstadter. The goal of the protests is far from revolutionary: There are no calls to nationalize university endowments or even to force large, private universities to pay taxes, let alone to create a socialist utopia. Disinvestment in 2024 is coupled with demands for a cease fire, for an immediate end to American support for Israel’s war, which could be the basis for a broader peace movement. But the divestment movement, at its core, it seems, aims to make capitalistic investment more equitable and responsive to democratic pressures, to empower public constituents who fail to benefit from private gains. Divestment will not end the war in Gaza, but it will end the influence of private companies over what is a public good: a university education.

This is not to denigrate the protests. Nor is it to claim that the protestors are not motivated by broader concerns of social justice. They certainly are—it is readily apparent that protestors are connecting divestment to larger issues of racial injustice, of how they can rectify moral wrongs at home and abroad. This is only to say that the divestment movement (or moment?) of 2024 operates within a vein of American reformism that is familiar to the activists of the 1960s, but also to the “agrarian revolt” and the Granger movement of the late 19th century, the progressive anti-monopolists of the early 20th century, and the New Dealers who sought to rein in corporate excess through state regulation. The tactics among these reformers are different—those who operate outside the state have different tactics than those who function within it— but their tenor and strategic ends are similar.

This brings us back to Hofstadter. If we see the protests within the contours of the American political tradition, it makes it difficult to view the activists as the disaffected, misguided, and uninformed revolutionaries the media has portrayed them out to be. Moreover, if we place the students in the context of the American political tradition, however capacious, it reveals the extent to which the police response has been disproportionate to the goals of the protestors. The heavy police presence in these protests demonstrates the capacity and willingness of public-private institutions and networks (police working alongside universities) to repress activities that do not upend their power, but question its purposes—and demands reform. This phenomenon has much to do with what came after the 1960s: the militarization of the police and the neoliberal transformation of the university. The protestors demand a revision to the modern social contract in this context, to what is right and just in a democratic society. This demand is not inordinate; it is not exceptional in American political history. As Adam Tooze has written, after he witnessed the police response to the Columbia protests:

Once you have seen the working of coercive state power up close, you realize that slogans like defund the police do one vital thing, something which should be essential for democracy, they challenge not just the bargain to which we agree - do we divest? are wages acceptable? etc - the radical slogans challenge the coercive power that ultimately sets the playing field on which we bargain.